Credits: Photos by: Dr. Narendra Khumbhare
“Accelerator dete rehnaa…..!! Gaadi band mat hone denaa…..!! Four by four lagaao…..!! Chakka dhass gaya hai….!” - An otherwise calm stretch of an off-road leading to village Mocha near the Khatiya-gate of Kanha Tiger Reserve (MP) was bustling with activity on a drenched forenoon. Nearly a dozen men including some forest-staff, Dr. Narendra and myself had plunged into action, quite literally! All efforts were being made to rescue one of WCT’s vehicles- aptly named ‘Rhino’; stranded in middle of a flooded stream intersecting the road. The fight against the strong current of waist-high water and sticky silt immobilising the vehicle was finally won with combined efforts of man and machine. Luckily a tractor was there at the site and pulled the jeep out with the help of the people. The Rhino was fully operational thanks to our skilled driver. Soaked and exhausted, everyone celebrated the moment of deliverance; yet the work had only begun.
Six days since initiation of WCT’s ‘Caring for Conservators’ project aimed at providing the forest staff with access to preventive health care services; the vehicle and the team had traversed most of the routes around Kanha. The health initiative involved a blood sample collection phase with teams moving across pre-determined locations to cover forest staff deployed at the remotest locations of the reserve. Scheduled to cover the staff from areas around Khatiya we had commenced our journey that usually takes an hour and a half from Mukki. But, with two days of continuous rains in the region the rivers and streams had swollen, flooding the nearby lands, including the bridges. Determined to reach the forest staff that had gathered at the venue, we kept exploring alternative routes to reach Khatiya with an undefeated will.
We finally made it to the camp location by mid-afternoon; all the while maintaining communications with the forest officials. The staff members were patiently awaiting our arrival and assisted us throughout the health camp. We managed to cover a significant number of staff from nearby ranges. The collected blood samples needed to be sent for analysis on the same day to the diagnostic laboratory in Mumbai. Transporting the samples out of Kanha was not going to be easy as there was no hope of water receding anytime soon. We requested the forest department officials for assistance and after a quick session of deliberation the senior officials suggested that we take the forest road through the tiger reserve to Mukki and then to Nagpur. We started late afternoon from Khatiya with one of the forest department vehicles escorting us.
The scenery was simply enthralling, a million shades of green as far as the eye could see with herds of Chital deer scattered across; a pair of Sambar deer appearing out of thickets and even a lone Gaur enjoying the bounty of monsoon in tranquillity. The department vehicle rushed through the muddy trail as the driver knew the roads like the back of his palm and we followed him blindly. However, our seemingly smooth journey came to a sudden halt as a giant tree had fallen on the path. ‘It’s just that kind of a day!’ we all thought to ourselves. The forest staff quickly got to work and axed away the fallen tree-trunk in 15-20 minutes; enough to make way for the vehicles.
Crossing the meadows full of tall-grass, rock-patches and shallow streams we were once again on our way; when suddenly the tail-lights of the lead vehicle brightened just before a left-curve. Not knowing what was ahead we approached slowly and stopped behind it. We couldn’t believe our eyes… the King of the jungle was on his evening stroll!! With its striking yellow and black striped coat contrasting against the lush green surroundings, the big cat walked nonchalantly towards our vehicle. The moment of awe was followed by a crazy scamper for our cameras and mobile phones. Narendra made most of this fortunate/chanced encounter and got some great pics. The Tiger, a majestic adult male, walked right past both the vehicles; ignoring the passengers apart from a passing look at us. Despite being ignored by him, we were in a state of trance. All of the tiredness and hunger had vanished! None of us even remember the details of the journey post that moment.
On reaching Mukki; the passengers from both vehicles got down and met each other, literally as kindergarten kids! Smiles all around, no signs of hopelessness felt just a few hours ago. Going through the pictures, we kept thanking our luck. Everything that could go right for us to see the Tiger had gone right!! Yeah, it really was that kind of a day - the kind you want to relive for years on end!